02 May 2008

Playing for keeps

St Athanasius: 1 John 5.1-5 and Matthew 10.22-25
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Albert
the Great Priory and Church of the Incarnation

Some say humans are competitive by nature; we are genetically geared to strive to be better than our peers. Others say that we are trained to compete with one another by a testosterone-poisoned male-dominated capitalist western culture. Whether we are programmed to compete by our DNA or brainwashed into surrendering our natural instincts for cooperation in favor of bloodthirsty sport, I think it is safe to say: everyone likes to win! And whether that win is confirmation of our obvious physical and mental superiority over inferior peers, or the vindication of natural selection in the primordial struggle to pass on survivable genes, a victory is a victory is a victory, and few of us would pass up the chance to do a little Glow Basking if the opportunity presented itself. But we have to ask ourselves whether or not Glow Basking and victories over enemies and conquering unconquered hearts and minds, whether or not these competitive pursuits are really good for the humble Christian to be running after. So, in what sense can we say that we as Christians must conquer the world?

In a world that hates the Word of Truth, we can say that it might be necessary for the Church to conquer the world just so we can survive as free believers. But conquer in what sense? Surely, we no longer think in terms of political rule or military conquest. We could say that we defeat the world as a source of temptation; that is, we overcome the seductive lure of the world and make a radical choice for Christ against the world. John, in his first letter, writes: “…we know that we love the children of God when we love God and obey his commandments…whoever is begotten by God conquers the world. And the victory that conquers the world is our faith.” So our victory, our win in the game is our trust and obedience to God’s commands, making God first, foundational, and our end. This victory, this triumph—faith—then goes on to conquer the world. Faith first, then the game against the world, then our triumph over the world.

Two victories are at play here. The victory of faith gifted to us by God and nourished by our obedience to His commandments, His commandment to love; and our successful resistance to the world’s temptations using faith. Notice that the second win is contingent on the first. No faith, no trust then no defeat for the world. We understand that faith is a gift, a grace to trust in God wholeheartedly. God is the source and object of our trust; it is our belief in Christ that makes us “begotten by God.” Again and again, Christ—everything he was/is/will be and everything he did/does/will do—Christ is the priority, the right of Way, and the only way.

Given all of this, we cannot be smug or righteous or triumphant in our defeat of the world. Though we have believed and still believe, it is God’s gift of trusting His promises that lends us the strength, the power, and the ability to do what we do when we overcome a hostile world. Our conquest is not the result of DNA, the survival of the fittest, nurtured training, or social engineering; it is begotten, not made, our victory is Christ himself.

Everyone likes to win. Everyone likes the affirmation that he or she is good enough, strong enough, smart enough to take on a challenge and complete the task. Lest we take credit too quickly, lest we come to think that we have done something that will endear us to the world, Jesus offers a warning and a promise: “You will be hated by all because of my name [the warning], but whoever endures to the end will be saved [the promise].” We are hated b/c we compete with an advantage: we play on Christ’s team. And we will be saved b/c we play his game by his rules; we play as Christs, begotten and loved because we love, and we play for keeps.

30 April 2008

Summer Class Reading Lists

Western Theological Tradition
First Summer Term 2008
Fr. Philip Powell, OP

Augustine. Essential Augustine.
, Hans J. The Protestant Reformation
Pegis, Anton. Introduction to Thomas Aquinas.
Richardson, Cyril. Early Christian Fathers.
von Balthasar, H. U.. Love Alone is Credible.

Handouts from ecumenical councils, papal documents, etc.

American Literature
First Summer Term 2008
Fr. Philip Powell, OP

The Scarlet Letter and Other Writings (Norton Critical Editions)

Chopin, K, The Awakening.

Faulkner, Wm. As I Lay Dying. Vintage.

Melville, H. Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street.

O’Connor, F. The Complete Stories.

Roth, Philip. American Pastoral .

a poetry packet will be provided

28 April 2008

Prayer Request

Please pray for my mom, Becky.

She found out late last week that she has emphysema.

She quit smoking six years ago, so the problem won't get any worse. But it's not going to get any better either.

Send a few prayers up for me as well. . .it's gonna be a tough week!

Thank You for the many promises of prayer for my Mom and me!

God bless, Fr. Philip, OP

"Lord, let me be killed..."

6th Week of Easter (M): Acts 16.11-15 and John 15.26-16.4
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Albert the Great Priory

In a poetry writing workshop, one of the most damning comments a reader can make is: “This is cliché.” This comment cuts straight to the bone of what it means to write good poetry and exposes quite possibly the scariest insecurity of any writer: “You are not being original!” Where we look to good writing to show us something new, we look to the conventions of polite conversation to free us from the potential embarrassment in social situations. In college, my friends and I called these “formal noises.” A phrase like, “Hey, how you doing?” Phrases and words that we hear so often that we no longer tag them as requiring anything of us other than that we play the game and politely utter another formal noise. We can find examples of formal noises in scripture…we’ve heard them a thousand thousand times. Clichés in polite conversation are one thing, however, allowing scriptural language to become cliché, allowing the words of the Word to become dull with use or to utter biblical language like a formal noise is dangerous. We have an example this morning. Let’s see if we can reclaim a clichéd phrase and restore it to its proper luster!

Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth, is attending to one of Paul’s homilies. Scripture tells us, “[She] listened, and the Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what Paul was saying.” How many times in your life as a Catholic have you heard someone use the phrase “open my/his/her/our heart(s)”? Don’t you hear this phrase as white noise? Just formal speech, meaningless filler? We pray all the time: “Lord, open our hearts and minds …” And we do this very casually, very matter-of-factly. When, in fact, this is an incredibly dangerous thing to say! How much more so to pray! But the habit of repetition, the pattern of sound and occasion has dulled the burn of the fire in these words and so we mouth them too easily and expect little to happen b/c we did so.

Let’s take a moment to look a little closer at what the heart is for us as believers. In the Catechism we read, “The heart is the dwelling-place where I am, where I live…the heart is the place ‘to which I withdraw.’ The heart is our hidden center, beyond the grasp of our reason and of others…The heart is the place of decision, deeper than our psychic drives. It is the place of truth, where we choose life or death. It is the place of encounter, because as the image of God we live in relation : it is the place of covenant”(CCC 2563). For us then our heart is that place where who we are most fundamentally rests. To open this place and offer it to another is an awesome, perhaps fearful task. And because we are no one unless we are in a relationship, in a covenant, we are defined essentially by the one who rests in our heart…whoever He or It may be.

Lydia’s heart is opened by the Holy Spirit, the spirit of truth promised by Christ as he says farewell to his disciples: “When Advocate comes whom I will send you from the Father…he will testify to me.” Paul testifies. Lydia listens. Her heart is opened. And the Spirit of Truth seizes her. She and her household are baptized. This is very dangerous. Dangerous? Yes. Jesus goes on to tell the disciples that b/c they have listened to his Word, received the Spirit of Truth from his Father by his agency, that their hearts will be opened. This is a good thing? Yes and no. As a result of this gift they will be expelled from the synagogues and killed as act of worship by those who have not listened to Word, have not received the Spirit of Truth, by those whose hearts—perhaps wisely in this case—remain closed.

As a prayer, “Lord, open our hearts,” means “Lord, let us be killed for knowing Your Truth.” Will we be so quick to mumble this religious cliché in the future? I hope so. But we should do so remembering what Jesus tells his disciples: “…the Spirit of Truth [I send you from the Father]…he will testify to me. And you also testify, because you have been with me from the beginning.” Even as we pray to be killed for knowing his truth, we remember: Christ is with us, then, now, always.

27 April 2008

Are we orphans?

6th Sunday of Easter: Acts 8.5-8, 14-17; 1 Peter 3.15-18; John 14.15-21
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Paul
and Church of the Incarnation

Was it easier back then, I wonder, to believe and to witness to Christ? “Back then,” of course, being during the first few decades after the resurrection. Was it simpler? You just believed, experienced Christ in the Spirit, and then ran about telling everyone what you now know to the truth: He is risen! And that was enough: he is risen. It had to be less complicated, less involved to be a follower of the Way way back then. Well, it wasn’t easier in the sense of having to run for your life every the temple guard or the Roman soldiers showed up. Then there were the crowds who weren’t happy about you blaspheming their elder gods when you preached the gospel. Not to mention the growing factions of Christians who split from the apostolic faith and polluted the Word with Egyptian cultic practices, Roman blood rituals, esoteric Greek mystery philosophies, and such nonsense. Oh yea, and then there’s that whole martyrdom business—arrows, blades, fires, crucifixions, drownings, mass murders by imperial decree. Belief itself was easier, I think. Though believing came at a much higher price than it does for us now. Of course, by “us” I mean, “western Christians.” You can still find the blade, the jail cell, the shot to the head in some parts of the world—mostly those places dominated by certain sects of Islam or the few remaining dictatorships. Still, reading the Acts of the Apostles you get the sense of a greater faith among the Christians, a brighter glory, a more urgent spirit of holiness and fervor than we sometimes experience now. Jesus had to know that the fire he kindled would burn hot for a while and then begin to settle into a warm glow before turning to ash altogether. How much more would his friends and their students begin to feel the pressure of family, friends, neighbors to return to the traditional ways once it became clear that he wasn’t coming back tomorrow or next week or even several years down the line. You would think that someone as smart as Jesus would have a plan in place to keep his Word burning down through the centuries. The Good News is: he did and that plan is called the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, our Advocate and Counselor!

Look at Philip in Samaria. The crowds paid attention to him because he “proclaimed the Christ to them.” He freed people from unclean spirits, healed the paralyzed, and “there was great joy in [Samaria].” So successful was Philip’s preaching there that “the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God…” They sent in the Big Guns, Peter and John, who “prayed for them, that they might receive the Holy Spirit, for it had not yet fallen upon any of them…” Philip had preached and healed baptized, but Peter and John laid hands on these new members of the family and “they received the Holy Spirit.” Notice here that though Philip brought the Word to Samaria, the larger Church—Peter and John—brought the Holy Spirit. Look at Philip in Samaria! He went down to that city and the Samaritans paid attention to him. Why? Because he “proclaimed the Christ to them.”

Who then is this Holy Spirit? Surely, Christ is enough! Go back a little while and remember the promise of Christ as he says farewell to his friends, “…I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always, the Spirit of truth…” This is the first part of his promise. What’s the second? Jesus promises, “I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you.” Who then is this Holy Spirit? Christ himself, that’s who: “In a little while the world will no longer see me,” Jesus says, “but you will see me, because I live and you will live.” If we live and he lives then it must be the case that we—all of us and Christ himself— we live together. What do we live in, together? The Holy Spirit! But then Jesus says, “…I am in my Father and you are in me and I in you.” So, it’s not the Spirit but the Father we live in? Not quite. It is the Father and the Spirit that we live in…we live as Christ, the one who had made us sons of the Father through the Spirit. Do you see the picture here?

Now, who are “we”? We are sons of the Father. We live in the Spirit. We are the brother and sisters of Christ. Who is “we’? Jesus says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments…and whoever love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him…” “We” then are those of us who keep Christ’s commandments and love him. So, if we are those who love Christ, living in him, the Father, and the Spirit and live with them in love, then can we say that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are Love? You better believe it! No, seriously, you had better believe it. Why? Because there is no way for us to abide with Christ other than this: to love God, love neighbor, love self in exactly the same way and to the same degree than we love God Himself. In fact, we cannot say that we love God while we hate our neighbor, while we hate ourselves. There is no room in a hateful heart for the love that gives us life in Him!

How then you do you love God? This is not a rhetorical question. This is a question about your eternal destination. It is a question that answers the question: who am I? Most deeply, most basically, at the heart of everything you are and hope to be, ask the question: how do I love God? Peter gives us some insight here. He writes, “Sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts.” Meaning, make the One who died for you, everything he is and everything he did, make him ruler of your very being, God of your thinking, your believing, your doing, your living and your dying. He must rule, or someone else will. Peter continues, “Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope…” Why do you hope? Why are you hoping? Seduced as you are toward being with God in eternity, why do you trust? Directed as you are toward your perfection in Christ, why do anticipate? Why is following Christ in his passion, his death, and his resurrection a Good for you? Knowing that your answer might lead to ridicule, abuse, violence, even death, why would you tell anyone why you hope? Peter says, “For it is better to suffer for doing good…than for doing evil.” If it is God’s will that you suffer, it is better to suffer telling the truth; it is better to hurt witnessing to Christ’s suffering for you.

Jesus, looking at his friends, knows that such a witness will draw the darkest spirits, the most maligned accusations against them. He knows this because he himself knows that even his friends—those sitting in front of him—will betray him. If your friends will abandon you in your most painful moment, why would you expect those who never knew you, even your enemies, to hang around and help? Peter writes, “[Jesus] was put to death in the flesh, he was brought to life in the Spirit.” And so it must be for us as well. Given this truth, why do we stay the course to the Cross?

Don’t you think that it was easier back then? They were closer to Christ. They knew him in the flesh. They heard him with their own ears, watched him with their eyes. They knew him in a way we never can. And yet, here we are. Gathered together in his name as his Body, offering his gifts on the altar of sacrifice, saying AMEN to lives bound to one another in charity. Here we are—loving him as he loves us so that he might reveal himself to us. What does he reveal? He reveals, he shows us that in his love, we are Christ! We abide, live, move and have our being, we plan grow, thrive, harvest in his love; we work, play, sleep, eat, study in his love; we do everything we do, think everything we think, feel everything we feel in his love. It is no more difficult now than it was then. The Spirit moved then, moves now. The Spirit set them on fire then, he sets us on fire now. The Spirit gave them what they needed to explain their hope; he gives us now the words, the courage, the power to preach and teach our hope in him now. Yes, he suffered; so do we. Yes, he died; so do we. But he lives, and so do we…in him, with him, through him. We live as Christ.

It is no easier now than it was then. Unclean spirits still plague us. Aren’t are tempted to surrender to our neighbors and say yes to this culture’s lust for death? Aren’t we ridiculed for our naïve faith in ancient tales of miracles? For believing that we need salvation from the stain of sin? For our hope that one day he will return in the flesh to take us away? Sure, of course, we are. The same spirit of despair, darkness, loathing, and destruction still haunts the Church. We must remain unmoved by this spirit of desolation. Love Christ. Follow his commandment to love. Remain in him, and he will remain in you. If He can change the sea into dry land and deliver His children from slavery, then he can give you the Word of Life to speak in His name. Keep your conscience clear and be ready. The devil prowls like a hungry lion hunting for someone to devour. If you want to be the meat between the devil’s teeth, then let go of Christ, surrender to despair, abandon your friends in the Body, and run toward the easier choice of living without our Father’s rule, without His love. This is the freedom the world has for sale. Purchase it with your immortal soul.